What I’d really like to talk to you about today is making your coffee a super-drink. Yeah, I know, you may already consider coffee a super, awesome drink but how about making it better, healthier and much more beneficial. Coffee, caffeinated of course (don’t do decaf… yuck!) offers a great morning wake up smack as well as having antioxidant properties and has been shown to provide other health benefits.
However, a cup of coffee also increases insulin resistance and spikes blood sugar. Now, if you like you coffee before exercise, this is great but if not, and your plans include driving to work to sit behind a desk for the day, meh, it’s lost some of its health points.
However, spicing up your Joe can counter these negative affects. In recent studies half a teaspoon of cinnamon a day reduced blood sugar levels, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Even if not diabetic and not too concerned about insulin levels, cinnamon has other benefits:
- it enhances antioxidant properties of other ingested foods
- it aids in reducing inflammation in joints and muscles
- it helps to control appetite by slowing down gastric emptying and thus blood sugar levels / spikes
So, maybe mix in a little cinnamon to your morning coffee to boost your day… just not before exercise though, you want black coffee for that job.
Now, back to the main topic of the post. Today I am going to talk about an exercise programming concept that is sadly not used enough…
…Welcome to the Jedi magic of getting stronger the easy way!
… did you fall off your seat with excitement?
You’ll most likely have heard of sets, reps or repetitions and if you do train you’ll have used them as a way to accumulate your training volume for the session. The most commonly used structures are 3x 5 or 6 for strength, 3x 10 for muscle growth and 2-3x 15-20 for muscular endurance. Throw these at any newbie or young trainee and they’ll get results – for a while anyway.
Whilst these work to a point, say up to the first year or so of training, they do come with baggage, the kind of baggage that can slow down your progress, get you hurt or bore you to tears!
Fatigue in the gym is what a lot of people seek. They associate fatigue with results and of course soreness the next day along with the accompanied inability to do much else that day (that sucks doesn’t it?). Soreness isn’t an indicator of progress. Lifting more weight, better muscular development and lifting more volume is indicative of progress. Being unable to move without discomfort the day (or two) after training is just plain dumb. If you’ve a career, a family, a set of stairs – what use is it to be miserable and sore?
Back to fatigue. Maybe, just maybe, fatigue isn’t a good measurement of when to stop a training session. It’ll sure stop you and it will stop you making potential in a gym session. We’re mostly concerned with gaining muscle strength. Exercising a muscle to fatigue is a common route to muscle strength gain but it’s tainted, rarely successful not the only method.
In most training programs, total training load or volume is a variable that we aim for and want to increase. Let’s basically define volume as the total reps x the load moved. There are lots of ways to express this but, essentially volume is going to increase over the term of a program lasting 4 to 6 weeks. Either the load (kg or lbs) is going to creep up or if you’re a minimalist, the weight remains the same while the amount of ‘accumulated’ repetitions goes up. Simple, yeah? The latter is my preferred method.
With a standard 3 x [enter desired rep range] each set will typically be taken to the point of fatigue and in most cases, muscular failure. This is an absolute waste of energy. Okay, let’s examine that too.
If you are completing 3 x 10 to fatigue in each set, how easy will it be to add more fatigue? You could push harder, take a hit of caffeine or other mega stimulant, risk tweaking that old injury or lose form and create a new injury.
When operating at high levels of exertion all the time it becomes increasingly harder to find progress. Is this motivating? If you are a ‘three times a week exerciser for health’ is this going to encourage you to keep turning up to the gym? Hell no my friend.
So how do you add progression, this added volume?
BRING IN THE LADDER
What the heck is the deal with ladders in a training program?
In publications written by Pavel Tsatsouline in and around 1999 or 2000, he wrote of a structure of strength training that avoided fatigue yet allowed trainees to build ‘strength’ and ‘strength and endurance’. The program discussed was primarily used for building pull ups in Special Forces for the Spetsnaz requirement of 18 dead hang pull ups wearing a 10kg bullet-proof vest. This program method has proven to work with most other strength movements.
He explained, trainees would start with 1 pull up, brief rest, then 2 and so on 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. At this point the trainee would repeat the 1 – 10 rep ladder. This 1 – 10 progression carry out once would take less than 10 mins and build up to 55 reps!
‘High-volume plus specificity minus burnout’
This systematic approach to accumulating training volume in a specific movement creates the perfect stimulus to build strength endurance without burnout, fatigue or getting into the injury territory.
For most purposes of building strength we work with 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ladders with a 8 rep (almost) max weight. This accumulates 15 reps. Programs generally start with 2 ladders (30 reps) and build up over a number of weeks to as many 5 ladders of 1-5. Yes, a total of 75 reps…. all acquired without burnout, fatigue or maxing out with hideous facial expressions (no-one cares to see your pain face really).
Imagine trying to do 70 reps with traditional 10 rep sets?
Proof is in the pudding!
A recent trainee at FitStrong followed this particular method which many before have followed. The original program had already been detailed out by coach Anthony Delugio in the ‘Rights of Passage’ program based on Pavels methods.
The program is built around the 1,2,3 ladder progressing to the 1,2,3,4,5 ladder with the kettlebell military press.
To be honest I rarely pursue the program through to the end with 5 ladders of 1 – 5. Why? Well, I’ve found over numerous occasions that waving up and down the 1 -3 and 1 – 5 ladders for no more than 3 ladders (scaling down when the body needs it and building up when the body is saying “hell yeah”) proves successful and it eliminates the risk of trainee boredom!
Our trainee started by testing out his pressing strength. He could successfully press the 24kg multiple times, 28kg a few times and get an ugly 32kg press and a pretty disgusting 36kg press x 1 right and nothing on the left.
The program commenced and finished with the 24kg kettlebell press with 1,2,3 ladders and over 4 weeks build up and down towards 1,2,3,4,5 ladders x 3, pressing 3 sessions per week.
Not a single set was taken to fatigue. Every rep was pursued for excellence, practicing good, better and best form.
By the end of the 4 weeks the trainee had had so much exposure to good, better and best pressing that his pressing looked seamless, effortless and smooth. Well practiced in other words.
Test day came along and to cut a long story short, he could press the 36kg perfectly with ease on each arm. “Bazinga”!
So, why do I like Ladders so much?
I can sum this up very quickly with a couple of points.
Deliberate practice without the distraction of over exertion. If every set is taken to the fatigue, this becomes the objective, the outcome and the top of mind element. If your goal at the start of the ladder is to accomplish 1 really good rep, well then, it’s done. You repeat the same with 2 reps, then 3 and the sets of 4 and 5 are the sets where you simply put to practice what you’ve already done but with just a little bit more effort and repetition required.
While you work appropriately hard on the 5 rep sets the shorter sets provide you more volume. Now, you wouldn’t pyramid following ladders as in, after the 5 rep set, you wouldn’t go back to 5,4,3,2,1. The objective is steer clear of fatigue. So after the 5 comes 1 rep set; time to recap on what best form is in other words, before building back up to the 5 rep set.
You may be thinking of dropping all the 1,2,3,4 rep sets and just work with the harder 5 rep sets and indeed, some programs do call for multiple sets of 5 reps. If your goal is to get really good and proficient with a lift though, the added time dedicated to practicing the skill of strength is invaluable. Dropping the 1,2,3,4 three times and just doing 3 sets of 5 actually costs you 30 reps of practice whilst you only train with 15 reps!
Got you thinking?
Well, why not try this method on your favourite lift. Consider your squat, deadlift, bench press or military press, pulls or even use the concept for conditioning movements.
With a weight you can safely handle for a hard set of 8-10 reps, you start your journey.
Commence with 3 ladders of 1,2,3 until you can accomplish 4 – 5 rounds before moving to a 1,2,3,4 ladder for 3 rounds and again, build up to 4 – 5. At this point start the process with 1,2,3,4,5 ladders until again, 4 – 5 ladders are in the books.
You may feel that you have earned your best at 3 – 4 rounds however. Listen to your body.
Don’t be afraid to reduce ladders in any session you feel low on steam or off for some reason. The aim is to wave up and down the volume as you build up to the end.
In case you’re wondering, the original Rights of Passage program is available on different websites, google it if you like.
If you’ve any questions about this program concept or other unconventional, against the norm style methods, get in touch.
Good luck and stay strong,